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Ben Moir and drag alter ego Vanity
Photograph: Lexy Potts + Supplied

Life in plastic: the fantastic legacy of Sydney’s living Barbie doll

Legendary drag queen Vanity spills the tea on what makes good drag, vulnerability, and why she’ll never do Drag Race

Alannah Le Cross
Written by
Alannah Le Cross

If you only know one name in the Sydney drag scene, it better be Vanity (just Vanity, she dropped the ‘Faire’ some time ago). With a 25-year-strong career in drag, she is much more than an entertainer. Vanity (sometimes known as Ben Moir) is also a successful businessperson, and has toured the world as a makeup artist and wig stylist. And in addition to being able to transform into the most plastic fantastic living Barbie doll you’ve ever seen, Vanity also houses one of the most impressive Barbie collections you’ll ever lay eyes on at her Sydney business headquarters. 

Drag sister to Courtney Act, Vanity is known and loved by some of the most famous drag queens in the world. She can regularly be found touring around Australia and New Zealand and sharing top billing with international RuPaul’s Drag Race stars – an honour that is usually only bestowed on queens who’ve competed on the television franchise. 

Wigs by VanityPhotograph: Lexy Potts

Vanity by name perhaps, but she’s more than skin-deep in nature. While Vanity’s polished drag artistry has earned reverence, it is Ben’s honesty, vulnerability and humour that has garnered legions of admirers from around the world. Over on Instagram at @wigsbyvanity, she’s earned a cult following. From Vanity’s videos where she animatedly models the ‘Fabulous Fridays’ wig specials, to her epic drama-filled pieces-to-camera on Instagram Stories, her social media presence makes for referential material for powder room chats on Oxford Street and beyond.

We caught up with Australia’s own “drag queen’s favourite drag queen” between Sydney WorldPride Rainbow Champion duties, touring the country with RuPaul’s Drag Race Allstars S3 winner Trixie Mattel, and headlining at Drag Expo Sydney (and we perused her epic Barbie collection).

So Vanity, how do you think it is that you've been able to build such a big platform for yourself?

Well I mean, to start with, I'm very good at my job. So there's that. But also, it helps having friends like Courtney [Act] who's, you know, world famous. But also because of Wigs by Vanity… we were pioneers in the industry. I think the drag queens that were around before Drag Race knew who I was through these different channels. Then exposure through the social media world. Trixie [Mattel] once said that I'm the drag queen’s drag queen.

Wigs by VanityPhotograph: Supplied/In The Dark

Can you give me a little background about Wigs by Vanity?

Courtney and I started it officially in 2003. We basically wanted to wear glamorous wigs ourselves, and I had a lot of skill and a lot of experience in wigs. So we just started to develop wigs that we wanted to wear, and then we realised we could get people to buy them, and we realised that that's a business. We were really lucky that we did it so early on, because we pioneered the entire industry. We developed the first synthetic one-size-fits-most lace front wigs for drag queens… A lace front is a wig that has a fine net on the front and individual hairs are knotted into it to create a natural looking hairline – or an unnatural looking hairline, depending on what you want. It became a real status symbol to have one. 

You perform all over the country with internationally famous queens. What’s that like?

It's nice for me, particularly because I'm not on Drag Race. And you know, a lot of the world is just really vying for girls on Drag Race. That's become the new currency in the drag world. I will never be on Drag Race, I won't be a part of that cannon. But it's nice to be recognised alongside those girls.

In the Dark [the production company that brings a lot of Drag Race queens to Australia] are such wonderful people to work with. They've got a good respect and a good understanding of the modern drag scene, which is really important. Because drag has evolved around the world and some venues don't understand that, they still treat it as if it's like 1998. 

Wigs by VanityPhotograph: Lexy Potts

In your eyes, what makes a good drag queen?

Authenticity. I feel that true drag comes from having this feminine energy inside you that manifests through drag. All the good drag queens I know aren’t playing a part, they’re expressing a part of their identity. Sometimes young queens are just putting on makeup and a dress and a wig. And that is still drag. And all drag is valid. But I find that a really good drag comes from a really authentic place, and it's sincere. There's magic there, because it comes from something so honest.

I think authenticity for me is really important, because I want people to know who I am. I don't want to put up some facade. I certainly don't want to be one of those people on Instagram that only shows the best parts of their life. I show when I'm lying in bed, I'm sick, if I'm upset… It means a lot that I don't need to lie to make people like me.

I find that’s one of the beautiful ironies of drag. We’re all fully buying into this artificial presentation, but it’s the authenticity put into it that can make it really special.

Yeah. Some people just don't have talent, no matter how much you want to do drag. You realise very quickly that some people don't want to do drag because of this expression. They want to do drag because they think it's gonna make them famous, or it's gonna make them feel better about themselves. You can quickly see who wants what out of drag and whether it is genuine. But then there’s some people who just love dressing up, they just want to go out in drag. They have no desire to perform, no desire to be famous. They just want to go out and have a good time dressed in drag. And that, that's authenticity. That's what they love.

How do you feel about where we're at with progress for the LGBTQ+ rights, and what do you hope is next?

I really pray that we don't follow America's lead. I don't think we will, because we're not that crazy and we're not that religious. I think a lot of their bigotry, homophobia and transphobia, they're disguising it as religion, but it's just basic hate. 

I think in Australia we should be very proud and grateful for where we are, but we can always go further. We [queer people] live in little bubbles in the cities and cosmopolitan areas where people are more open minded. But my family lives in a little town called Merriwa in the Upper Hunter and there’s less than 2,000 people. I had seen it to be a very narrow minded, backward- thinking ‘ocker’ town. But there’s a little queer community there. There's gay people, and nobody has an issue with it. I lived for a long time with an assumption that the moment you get outside of the city, Australia is still a very harsh place when it comes to acceptance. But that little town up there gives me hope that other places in Australia have also progressed in that way. 

Wigs by VanityPhotograph: Lexy Potts

What do you feel are the pros and cons of the ‘RuPaulification’ of drag?

What Priscilla did for Australia in the ’90s, Drag Race has done for the world now. Priscilla did sort of water down drag. A lot more people than ever were coming out wanting to see drag, but they just wanted to see one type of drag. Which we hated, because it did affect the individuality. But at the same time, the more people the better, the more money around. I mean, as a business owner I'm very happy, because the more drag queens, the more wigs I sell!

Drag is a beautiful thing, and it has helped me become who I am. I wouldn't have anything here today without drag, not just physically but emotionally. And so the more people that can experience that, who need to experience drag, the better. It [mainstreaming] does water down [the art form], it does. But people who are good always come out on top and become visible.

You said earlier that we'll never never see you on Drag Race. Is that a personal decision?

Yeah, that is a personal decision. The main reason why I couldn't do Drag Race is because, like, I suffer from depression, and my mental health is really important to me. I just don't think I could face it. My bubble is so tight and so fabulous and everyone's lovely. But going on Drag Race invites a whole a whole mass of people in who say they love drag, but love to hate it. I've read comments. 

I've got a good thing going on, and I don't have any control over what happens on Drag Race and how it's edited. They could make me a villain and I could lose my business and everything I've worked for.

Wigs by VanityPhotograph: Supplied/In The Dark

You had a big Sydney WorldPride, including being honoured as a Rainbow Champion. Now that the glitter has settled, what would you like to see next?

I would love them to actually invest some money in Oxford Street. I would love to see the City of Sydney continue that work, and to work out a plan of how they can help queer businesses exist in that environment. I don't know what that option is, but Oxford Street needs help. I really would like to see Oxford Street actually be a focal point on some infrastructure investment. 

So, did you teach Courtney Act everything that she knows?

No, no! I taught Courtney a lot of things that she uses now... I’m trying to put this delicately, but, the reason why she looks the way she does now [her makeup] is because that's what I taught her. That's a very important part of what she does. So people think that I told her everything, but it's just one element... But Courtney knew a lot of stuff beforehand, and she does a lot of stuff that I would never be able to do… I will add, whatever I taught Courtney, I gave willingly and freely. Except rainbows [my favourite colour]. She stole rainbows from me. And my lubing technique. 

Wigs by VanityPhotograph: Lexy Potts

Vanity is appearing at Drag Expo Sydney, May 19-21. Find out more here. Vanity’s Dreamhouse Club Tour is touring around Australia in July and August, you can catch the Sydney leg at Universal Nightclub on Friday July 21. Find tickets and more here.

Photography: @lexypottsphotography and @itdevents.


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